I think we can all agree that last night's Arizona-Chicago game was one of the most shocking games in NFL history. Shocking in how Arizona dominated the first three quarters, and shocking in the way they choked at the end.
How on earth did the Cardinals manage to blow their 23-3 lead? Sure, kicker Neil Rackers deserves some blame for missing the game-ending field goal, and everyone on the Arizona punt coverage team is wearing goat horns today. But the biggest culprits in this loss were running back Edgerrin James, the offensive linemen who couldn't block for him, and the coaches who kept calling his number.
Yes, normally it is a good idea to run out the clock with a lead, rather than stop the clock with incomplete passes or worse, risk an interception. But not every general statement applies to every specific situation. The Cardinals have not been able to run the ball against anyone this year, let alone the Bears. (When asked why he suddenly started dominating, Brian Urlacher told reporters “First of all, they weren’t blocking me.”) Matt Leinart, meanwhile, was killing the Chicago zone coverage in the first half. Every single play he'd find some guy open and ping, first down.
The offensive strategy against the Bears seems pretty clear now: keep in multiple tight ends and/or running backs for max protect against the Chicago pass rush, and send the rest of your guys out to go find the holes in the Cover 2. Leinart was running a lot of quick drop-and-throws, play-action rollouts, and shotgun formation, plays designed to compensate for the fact that Arizona's offensive line is awful.
But in the second half, the Cardinals shied away from using their hot quarterback. They started running on every first or second down -- and since the running game was completely impotent, Leinart was always stuck in third-and-long. No quarterback can consistently convert third-and-long over and over, let alone a rookie with one NFL start under his belt and his best receiver sitting on the sidelines in street clothes.
James gained a grand total of 55 yards on 36 carries. No player in NFL history has rushed for fewer yards on that many carries. Looking at the play-by-play shows you how futile the Arizona running game was. Nine times, Edge lost yardage on a run. Five times he was stopped at the line of scrimmage for zero yards, and six times he gained just one yard. It's hard to tell how much of this is Edge's fault, and how much is the offensive line. But Edge's calling card is supposed to be his ability to push forward for extra yardage. Did anybody ever notice him actually doing that during the second half of last night's game? I sure didn't see it.
If you read the weekly Quick Reads column, you know our DPAR (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) stats. Edge's runs were worth -7.8 PAR; since Arizona has actually played good run defense against other teams too, that gets bumped up to -6.9 DPAR. That's pretty horrible, but believe it or not, when it comes to our Football Outsiders stats, this is not the worst rushing game ever.
It's hard to compare Edge's game to past years with the opponent adjustment, because we don't know how the opponent adjustments will look once both Arizona and Chicago have played a full season. But based on the non-adjusted PAR number, there have been three rushing performances since 2000 with even less value:
• 2001 Week 1: Stephen Davis, back when he was still with the Redskins, gained 35 yards on 14 carries with three fumbles in a 30-3 blowout loss to San Diego. FO result: -10.1 PAR, -8.2 DPAR with opponent adjustment.
• 2001 Week 17: Ricky Williams, in his final game with New Orleans, gained 33 yards on 11 carries with three fumbles in a 38-0 blowout loss to San Francisco. FO result: -8.7 PAR, -8.3 DPAR with opponent adjustment. By the way, Ricky also had -8 receiving yards in this game.
• 2003 Week 16: Deuce McAllister gained 50 yards on 21 carries in a 20-19 loss to Jacksonville. This is the famous game that ended with New Orleans running one final play with a zillion laterals for a touchdown, only to have John Carney honk the extra point to end the Saints' playoff hopes. McAllister fumbled away the ball as the Saints were driving for the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the official stats for some reason don't count a play where McAllister dropped the handoff on fourth-and-2 and lost nine yards. Only two runs went longer than four yards: one for five, one for nine. FO result: -10.1 PAR, -8.2 DPAR with opponent adjustment. If you add in receiving, though, McAllister was better than Edge was on Monday night; he caught six passes for 63 yards. James caught just one pass for seven yards.
In general, these games score lower than Edge last night because of the fumbles. Edge's fumble came at the worst possible time in the game, but he only fumbled once. Without considering fumbles, this was unquestionably the worst rushing game of the last few years.
Before the season, we wrote in Pro Football Prospectus 2006 that James would have a serious decline behind the Arizona offensive line, but we never imagined anything like this. After six games, James is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. That's less than either Marcel Shipp (2.9) or J.J. Arrington (3.3) averaged last year.
As a team, the Cardinals now average 2.5 yards per carry. That number will climb before the end of the year, but only one team since 1978 has averaged less than 2.9 yards per carry: the 1994 New England Patriots, the team where Drew Bledsoe set the all-time record for pass attempts.
At this point, it has to be acknowledged that the signing of Edgerrin James was a dismal failure. The impotence of the Arizona offensive line has rendered him completely ineffective -- and things are only going to get worse. James is fighting the twin demons of age and overuse. Running backs generally decline after age 28, and Edge will start to lose his speed and agility. Worse, despite his horrific performance, the Cardinals have handed Edge the ball 148 times this year. That puts him on pace for 394 carries, which would be the sixth highest total in NFL history. Remember: running backs generally break down if they carry the ball 370 or more times in a season. I can't even fathom how bad Edge will be next year if the Cardinals work him for more than 370 carries this year -- and then stick him behind this line again.
Note: Edited with correction on 2003 New Orleans game.